New ACTH Detection Method Improves Cure Rates in Cushing’s Disease Patients

Researchers have identified a new, quick method for detecting ACTH-producing tumors – called Elecsys – that can improve the cure rates of Cushing’s disease patients undergoing surgery.

The study, “Long-term outcomes of tissue-based ACTH-antibody assay–guided transsphenoidal resection of pituitary adenomas in Cushing disease,” was published in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Transsphenoidal resection (TSR) – a surgical procedure performed through the nose and sphenoid sinus to remove a pituitary tumor – has been the method of choice for treatment for Cushing’s disease.

However, it often fails to localize the tumor with precision, leading to an incomplete resection (removal). This is likely a result of the preoperative methods used to guide surgeons before surgery, which include both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a minimally invasive procedure called bilateral inferior petrosal sinus sampling (BIPSS) that measures ACTH in the veins that drain the pituitary gland.

However, both “suffer from suboptimal sensitivity and thus allow for incomplete resections, specially if pathological frozen sections fail to identify tumor,” researchers wrote.

MRI, for example, detects only 50 percent of Cushing’s adenomas, limiting surgeons’ ability to conduct curative TSR surgeries. Therefore, better diagnostic and tumor localization techniques are needed to increase the likelihood that initial surgeries can remove the entire tumor and cure patients.

A team of researchers at Yale School of Medicine evaluated a new method for guiding tumor localization during TSR. The method – a double-antibody sandwich assay for ACTH – is performed in the operating room in resected pituitary samples from patients. ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) is a hormone produced in the pituitary gland in the brain, that simulated cortisol production in the adrenal glands. In patients with Cushing disease the pituitary gland releases too much ACTH.

In the new method – called Elecsys – samples are squeezed between sandwich-like system composed of two antibodies that recognize two sections of the ACTH protein. The three-step procedure is quick, allowing doctors to analyze samples in the operating room and determine if they have removed the entire tumors.

The performance and outcomes associated with the Elecsys were assessed by reviewing data of tissue samples from 14 patients with ACTH-secreting adenomas, who underwent TSR surgeries between 2009 and 2014.

“The intraoperative TSR protocol was modified with the introduction of the ACTH assay such that if either the assay or the frozen-section pathology returned results positive for tumor, that area of the gland was resected,” the researchers explained.

The new ACTH method detected tumor tissue and was capable of distinguishing it from normal tissue with a 95% sensitivity and 71.3% specificity. These values are comparable to those using the standard method for tumor localization, which requires frozen sections of the tumor. This suggests that the test can be used either in conjunction with or in place of frozen sections.

Also, 85.7% of the patients achieved long-term disease remission, with the remission rate exceeding the rate with previous methods (71.9%).

Overall, “these preliminary findings reflect the promising potential of tissue-based ACTH-antibody-guided assay for improving the cure rates of Cushing’s disease patients undergoing TSR. Further studies with larger sample sizes, further refinements of assay interpretation, and longer-term follow-ups are needed,” the study concluded.


Intraoperative MRI improves complete resection of pituitary macroadenoma

A 63-year-old man was referred to the Massachusetts General Hospital Neuroendocrine & Pituitary Tumor Clinical Center for management of a pituitary macroadenoma. He experienced increasingly severe retro-orbital headaches in the past year. He reported no double vision, fatigue, orthostatic dizziness, change in beard growth or reduction in libido. An outside head CT scan showed an enlarged pituitary gland.

Imaging and laboratory tests

A pituitary MRI with magnified pituitary slices and gadolinium contrast was ordered. A well-circumscribed “snowman-shaped” sellar mass was identified, measuring 2.6 cm x 2 cm x 1.8 cm (anteroposterior x transverse x craniocaudal) with suprasellar extension (Figure 1). The lesion was heterogeneous on T1-weighted scans after enhancement with IV gadolinium contrast. An area of hypointensity in the superior margin was consistent with a small area of cystic or hemorrhagic degeneration.

Although the mass did not extend laterally into the cavernous sinus, the sellar mass extended upward into the suprasellar cistern through a hole in the dural, the diaphragma sellae, to compress the optic chiasm. The restriction of adenoma growth by the diaphragma sellae results in the snowman shape of the macroadenoma. The optic chiasm and infundibulum (pituitary stalk) could not be identified on coronal or sagittal images (Figure 1). Visual field on confrontation suggested lateral field deficits (bilateral lateral hemianopsia) that were confirmed on formal Goldmann kinetic perimetry visual fields.

Figure 1. Preoperative MRI scan. A large “snowman-shaped” pituitary adenoma (green arrow) has heterogeneous enhancement after gadolinium contrast administration. A small hypodense area in the adenoma likely represented hemorrhage/cystic degeneration (yellow arrow). The tumor does not surround the carotid siphon, an S-shaped portion of the internal carotid artery (red arrows) within the cavernous sinus located laterally from the sella turcica where the pituitary gland resides. (A) Coronal image. (B) Sagittal image. Abbreviation: SS = spenoid sinus.

Source: Stephanie L. Lee, MD, PhD, ECNU. Reprinted with permission.

Initial hormonal evaluation was normal and included morning adrenocorticotropic hormone 18 pg/mL, cortisol 13.64 µg/dL, thyroid-stimulating hormone 2.14 uIU/mL, free thyroxine 1.2 ng/dL and prolactin 12.6 ng/mL. The patient’s morning testosterone level was normal at 324 ng/dL, with follicle-stimulating hormone 2.4 mIU/mL and luteinizing hormone 1.6 mIU/mL. His insulin-like growth factor I level was normal at 124 ng/mL.

Tumor resection

The patient was treated preoperatively with stress-dose hydrocortisone 50 mg. He then underwent transsphenoidal pituitary tumor resection. After the surgeon believed there was an adequate excision of the tumor, the extent of tumor resection was confirmed by an intraoperative MRI (Figure 2 on page 8).

Figure 2. Intraoperative MRI scan. The large macroadenoma is not seen after transsphenoidal surgery. The optic chiasm (yellow arrow) can be seen after removal of the tumor. (A) Coronal image. (B) Sagittal image. Abbreviation: SS = spenoid sinus.

The operation was concluded after the imaging confirmed the complete resection of the pituitary adenoma. The patient’s postoperative course was uneventful. Imaging 4 weeks after the resection confirmed complete resection of the suprasellar mass with residual enhancement of the resection bed and sphenoid sinuses (Figure 3 on page 8). The postoperative MRI revealed a normal optical chiasm and a downward tending of the infundibulum to the residual pituitary gland located inferiorly along the sella turcica (pituitary fossa) of the sphenoid bone. Pathology confirmed a pituitary adenoma. His anterior and posterior pituitary function were normal 6 weeks postoperatively, and his visual field deficit improved.

Intraoperative MRI

Imaging like that used in this case occurs in a specially designed operating room that allows MRI scans during surgery without moving the patient from the surgical table. The MRI is kept in a shielded enclosure during the procedure and then moved along a track into the operating room for imaging. Clinical indications for the use of intraoperative MRI in neurosurgery include resection of pituitary macroadenomas. In the past, these tumors underwent transsphenoidal resection, and the postoperative MRI was performed after 1 or more days after the procedure to check for complete removal. If residual tumor was found, the patients underwent watchful waiting, external radiation or repeat surgery.

The strategic advantage of an intraoperative MRI is that the imaging is performed during the operative procedure, and if there is any residual tumor, surgery can be resumed after the MRI is moved back into the shielded enclosure.

Figure 3. Four-week postoperative MRI scan. The large macroadenoma is not seen after the transsphenoidal survey. The optic chiasm and infundibulum (pituitary stalk) can be seen after resection of the tumor. The pituitary stalk is deviated to the left of the sella where the residual normal thyroid is locate along the sella turcica. The floor of the sella enhances with gadolinium infusion after surgery due to postoperative inflammation. (A) Coronal image. (B) Sagittal image. Abbreviation: SS = spenoid sinus.

It has been reported that the use of intraoperative MRI does not increase complication rates compared with conventional transsphenoidal surgery. Reports on the improvement of gross tumor resection using intraoperative MRI are variable, perhaps due to the expertise of the surgeon. Several reports suggest the use of intraoperative MRI allowed additional resection of noninvasive macroadenomas in 67% to 83% of the patients with a gross tumor resection. These results suggest that a substantial volume reduction and increased gross tumor resection of pituitary macroadenomas occurs with the use of intraoperative MRI compared with standard surgery. One study demonstrated that the gross tumor resection rates of invasive tumors was also improved with the use of intraoperative MRI compared with usual preoperative imaging and surgery (25% vs. 7%).

The use of intraoperative MRI, especially with transsphenoidal reoperations for invasive and noninvasive pituitary macroadenomas, leads to significantly higher “gross tumor resection” rates. This method prevents additional operations or treatment, such as radiation, because it reduces the number of patients with residual adenoma after surgery. This technology is usually found in specialized tertiary care hospitals but should be considered for reoperation for large pituitary macroadenomas or initial operation for large invasive pituitary macroadenomas.

Disclosures: Lee and Swearingen report no relevant financial disclosures.


In Memory: Edward H. Oldfield, MD, 1947–2017

Dr. Oldfield was my pituitary surgeon at NIH back in 1987.  This was back in the olden days of transsphenoidal surgery.  I honestly expected to die but this man saved my life.


Ed started as Senior Staff Fellow in the Surgical Neurology Branch at the NIH (1981). After 5 years, Ed would become the Chief of the Surgical Neurology Branch. He would stay on as Branch Chief and lead the neurosurgical effort at the NIH for the next 21 years. During his tenure, he developed clinical, research, and training programs in epilepsy, congenital malformations, syringomyelia, nervous system neoplasia, drug delivery, and vascular malformations. The strength of these programs was his leadership and their multidisciplinary nature, which incorporated physicians and scientists across the basic, translational, and clinical arenas. Research investigation was always targeted at defined clinical problems. Under his direction, these programs shaped understanding of the studied neurological disorders, as well as improving patient care.

Read the entire obituary here: Edward H. Oldfield, MD, 1947–2017

Pituitary tumors require collaborative care for best treatment results

A statement released by the Pituitary Society outlines criteria for developing pituitary tumor centers of excellence and asserts that the best care for patients comes from a collaboration of endocrinologists and experienced pituitary surgeons.

“Such a core team needs to be supported by a collaborative environment of specialists in other areas, such as neuroradiology, neuropathology, radiation oncology, neuro-ophthalmology, otorhinolaryngology, plus trained nursing,” the authors wrote.

Felipe F. Casanueva, MD, PhD, professor of medicine in the department of medicine, endocrine division at Santiago de Compostela University in Spain, and nine other experts served as a task force to develop the statement.

The authors wrote that goals of the collaborative team should include the following:

  • detecting the tumor early;
  • diagnosing the tumor;
  • determining the most suitable treatment, whether observation, surgical, medical or radiotherapy;
  • removing the pituitary mass and preserving normal pituitary tissue, if surgical treatment is needed;
  • using treatments that eliminate hormonal hypersecretion and/or its effects;
  • preventing tumor recurrence; and
  • recognizing and caring for delayed complications.

“The final goal is the elimination or at least reduction of the excess morbidity and mortality associated with the tumor and hypersecretion syndrome as well as treatment of accompanying pituitary hormone insufficiencies,” the authors wrote. “For many patients, this requires a program of care, including medical therapy, surgery and radiation therapy, in addition with long-term follow-up.”

Further, pituitary tumor centers of excellence should be patient-centered and focus on engagement activity, family impact, educational platforms and digital infrastructure to facilitate care across specialties.

“In the last few decades, a considerable body of evidence supports the concept that patients with pituitary tumors would receive the best care from units of excellence composed of expert neurosurgeons performing pituitary surgery by transsphenoidal and other approaches, plus experienced neuroendocrinologists devoted to these types of tumors,” the authors wrote. “These experts, working in liaison with supporting units, would form a center of excellence for pituitary tumors (PTCOE). Such a center would be the optimal organization for patients, the most cost-effective for health administrators, and a more suitable structure to allow for derivation and presentation of results, and advancement of pituitary science.” – by Amber Cox

Disclosures: Casanueva reports he is a consultant and receives lecture fees from Novo Nordisk, Orexigen and Pronokal and is a member of the board of directors of the Pituitary Society. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.


The burden of Cushing’s disease: clinical and health-related quality of life aspects

Thanks to Robin Ess for the easy to read chart!


Objective Cushing’s disease (CD) is a rare endocrine disorder characterized by excess secretion of ACTH due to a pituitary adenoma. Current treatment options are limited and may pose additional risks. A literature review was conducted to assess the holistic burden of CD.

Design Studies published in English were evaluated to address questions regarding the epidemiology of CD, time to diagnosis, health-related quality of life (HRQoL), treatment outcomes, mortality, prevalence of comorbidities at diagnosis, and reversibility of comorbidities following the treatment.

Methods A two-stage literature search was performed in Medline, EMBASE, and Science Citation Index, using keywords related to the epidemiology, treatment, and outcomes of CD: i) articles published from 2000 to 2012 were identified and ii) an additional hand search (all years) was conducted on the basis of bibliography of identified articles.

Results At the time of diagnosis, 58–85% of patients have hypertension, 32–41% are obese, 20–47% have diabetes mellitus, 50–81% have major depression, 31–50% have osteoporosis, and 38–71% have dyslipidemia. Remission rates following transsphenoidal surgery (TSS) are high when performed by expert pituitary surgeons (rates of 65–90%), but the potential for relapse remains (rates of 5–36%). Although some complications can be partially reversed, time to reversal can take years. The HRQoL of patients with CD also remains severely compromised after remission.

Conclusions These findings highlight the significant burden associated with CD. As current treatment options may not fully reverse the burden of chronic hypercortisolism, there is a need for both improved diagnostic tools to reduce the time to diagnosis and effective therapy, particularly a targeted medical therapy.


Cushing’s disease (CD) is a rare condition caused by a pituitary adenoma that secretes excess ACTH (1), which promotes excess cortisol production from the adrenal glands. Excess cortisol induces a clinical phenotype that harbors all components of the metabolic syndrome, such as central obesity, diabetes mellitus, dyslipidemia, and hypertension, as well as muscle weakness, hirsutism, increased bruisability, psychological dysfunction, and osteoporosis (1234567891011).

Patients with CD experience a significant clinical burden due to comorbidities, increased mortality, and impaired health-related quality of life (HRQoL) due to prolonged exposure to elevated cortisol levels (3511121314151617181920). In particular, patients with CD often experience severe fatigue and weakness, physical changes, emotional instability, depression, and cognitive impairments, which have a profound impact on daily life (1321).

Although there have been several consensus statements published recently on the definition of remission, diagnosis, and the management of CD, the severity and diversity of the clinical scenario and associated morbidities continue to present a management challenge (12223). Additionally, there is recent evidence of persistent deleterious effects after remission, most notably persistent elevated cardiovascular risk (322). The main objective of the current literature review is to describe the current burden of the disease and to summarize data on specific aspects of this burden, which underscores the need for improved diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.

Materials and methods

Available literature were evaluated to address questions regarding the epidemiology of CD, time to diagnosis, mortality, prevalence of comorbidities at diagnosis, reversibility of comorbidities after treatment (in particular, after disease remission), outcomes and complications of current treatment options, and HRQoL associated with CD and interventions.

The literature search was performed in Medline, EMBASE, and Science Citation Index, using keywords related to the epidemiology, treatment, and outcomes of CD. It was conducted in two stages: i) articles published between 2000 and 2012 were identified through a PubMed search using the following keywords: CD, incidence, prevalence, mortality, treatment, remission, cure, excess cortisol, outcomes, cost, QoL, morbidities, transsphenoidal surgery (TSS), adrenalectomy, radiotherapy, steroidogenesis inhibitors, ketoconazole, mitotane, aminoglutethimide, etomidate, metyrapone, pasireotide, and cortisol receptor antagonists; and ii) an additional hand search was conducted on the basis of the bibliographies of identified articles. All studies that provided data (regardless of publication year) related to these research questions were retained.


Different criteria for defining the remission of hypercortisolism have been proposed, ranging from the occurrence of definitive or transient postoperative hypocortisolemia to the adequate suppression of cortisol after dexamethasone administration. According to a recent consensus statement (23), persistent postoperative morning serum cortisol levels of <2 μg/dl (∼50 nmol/l) are associated with remission and a low recurrence rate of ∼10% at 10 years. Persistent serum cortisol levels above 5 μg/dl (∼140 nmol/l) for up to 6 weeks following surgery require further evaluation. When serum cortisol levels are between 2 and 5 μg/dl, the patient can be considered in remission and can be observed without additional treatment for CD. A subset of patients can even develop complete adrenal insufficiency (serum cortisol levels below 2 μg/dl (∼50 nmol/l)) up to 12 weeks postsurgery (2425). Therefore, repeated evaluation in the early postoperative period is recommended. However, long-term follow-up is necessary for all patients because no single cortisol cutoff value excludes those who later experience disease recurrence, and up to 25% of patients develop a recurrent adenoma within 10 years after surgery (262728).


Incidence and prevalence of CD

Although epidemiologic data on CD are limited, several population-based studies indicate an incidence of 1.2–2.4 per million (1419) and the prevalence of diagnosed cases to be ∼39 per million population (14). Lindholm et al(19) used the case definition as either the presence of a corticotroph adenoma or remission after neurosurgery, which yielded an estimated incidence rate of 1.2–1.7 per million per year. Etxabe & Vazquez (14) reported an incidence of 2.4 per million in Vizcaya, Spain. A large-scale retrospective survey carried out in New Zealand by Bolland et al(29) found the approximate prevalence of all forms of Cushing’s syndrome (CS) (the majority of these cases were of pituitary origin) to be 79 per million and the incidence to be 1.8 per million per year. Differences in epidemiologic estimates may be attributable to varying case definitions (for instance, the study by Lindholm excluded cases in which the adenoma could not be localized or those that could not achieve remission from surgery), geographical differences, and temporal effects. The prevalence of CD may be underestimated due to unrecognized patients with mild symptoms and patients with a cyclic form of CD (30).

Time to diagnosis

Data on the time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis are also limited. In a prospective study by Flitsch et al(31) of 48 patients with pituitary adenomas, including 19 who had ACTH-secreting adenomas causing CD, the reported time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis was 4.3 years. A study by Martinez Ruiz et al(32), which was based on only four pediatric CD patients, reported the time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis as ranging from 2.5 to 5 years. Etxabe & Vazquez (14) estimated that the average time from onset of clinical symptoms to diagnosis in 49 CD patients was 45.8±2.7 months (6–144 months), thus 3.8 years. This is corroborated by the findings from a Belgian cross-sectional study on pituitary adenomas including CD, which estimated that patients experienced symptoms for an average of 45 months before diagnosis (33). However, the reliability and generalizability of these data are limited by small sample sizes and the retrospective nature of the studies. Indeed, the New Zealand data from Bolland et al(29) report that on presentation, patients experienced symptoms for a median of 2.0 years (but ranging up to 20 years) before diagnosis. On the basis of data from the prospective European Registry on Cushing’s syndrome (ERCUSYN) (total number of patients=481, of whom 66% of patients had CD), median delay in diagnosis was 2 years (34).

Mortality in patients with CD

Mortality in patients with CD has been analyzed in several small studies, with overall rates reported as standardized mortality ratio (SMR) ranging from 1.7 to 4.8 (Table 1) (14151719). In studies in which mortality was assessed among those in remission and those with persistent disease separately, patients with persistent hypercortisolemia consistently had the highest mortality risk (15193536). In addition, TSS as a first-line treatment has been an important advance as high remission rates after initial surgery have been accompanied by mortality rates that mirror those observed in the general population (173537). In a case series from the UK, it was found that the majority of deaths occurred before 1985, which was before TSS was employed as the routine first-line treatment at the center (36). In a recent retrospective study, 80 patients undergoing TSS for CD between 1988 and 2009 were evaluated, and long-term cure (defined as ongoing absence of hypercortisolism at last follow-up) was reported in 72% of patients. However, overall elevated mortality persisted in patients (SMR 3.17 (95% CI: 1.70–5.43)), including those who achieved ‘cure’ (SMR 2.47 (95% CI: 0.80–5.77)), although even higher mortality was seen in those with postoperative recurrence/persistent disease (SMR 4.12 (95% CI: 1.12–10.54) (38). Additionally, a nationwide, retrospective study in New Zealand reported significant persistently increased mortality both in macro- and microadenomas (SMR 3.5 (1.3–7.8) and 3.2 (2.0–4.8) respectively), despite long-term biochemical remission rates of 93 and 91% of patients, respectively (29).


%d bloggers like this: